Sex and Civilization: The Body as Battleground

“Militant homosexuality is fundamentally opposed to religion, family, and anything that presupposes a natural moral order, a transcendent God, or something else higher than ourselves.”

—Steven A. Schwalm, Family Research Council

Today, we often are told that the hysterical ravings of the New Christian Right (NCR) are a pathological homophobia, or perhaps a displaced and sublimated yearning for homoeroticism. Doubtless both play a role, but I want to suggest that homosexuality does threaten civilization, when viewed from a certain perspective, and that it has been seen this way since bicblical times. Let’s take a look.

Power and oppression begin on our bodies. Ever since the Hebrew Bible, the human body has been the site of boundary-drawing, nation-defining, and, most importantly, the control of desire. Abraham’s mutilation of his and his son’s penises physically mark his family as distinct from all others; an act which not coincidentally curtails pleasure and marks the subservience of man to divine (or human) authority. We today are Abraham’s heirs, and re-enactors, of countless acts of circumscription. Today, as 2500 years ago, our own bodies are the instruments of authority, power, and control. Religious and political institutions of authority, usually backed up by violence, inscribe themselves on our genitals, our hairstyles, the ways in which we express our sexuality. We learn how to obey by learning how to curb our appetites in the name of an abstract good, defined and policed by authority. This is why gender and sexuality remain such contentious sites of religious and political debate today. Sexuality is where law is engendered, and where patriarchy begins.

Consider the endless regulations in Leviticus governing skin diseases, menstrual and seminal emissions, and sexual activity. Like Abraham’s knife, these rules set apart the Israelite from the Canaanite—both of which, as biblical scholar Ken Stone has pointed out, are identities constructed by literary discourse, not ethnicity, history, or even religion. Although they were geographically, familially, and culturally intermingled with “Canaanites,” the “Israelites” distinguished themselves by the very act of distinguishing. The Israelites were the boundary-drawers, distinguishing pure from impure, male from female, Israelite from foreign. In some cultures, the liminal was regarded as the sacred; in the incipient Israelite religion, it became terrifying. Boundary-crossing shifted from shamanic transcendence to idolatrous transgression.

In the Hebrew Bible, men inverted nature by positing that women came out of men rather than the biological truth of the reverse. They set up boundaries around blood and semen which rendered women tameh (usually translated as “impure”) during their menstrual cycles, regulated sexual activity even between heterosexually married couples, and encoded in ethical monotheism the likely much older taboos around blood and ritual cleanliness. And in the New Testament, Paul posits a new ‘nature’ in which women are subservient to men, the body is subservient to the “spirit,” and what is physin (natural) is that which curbs what we today might call “nature” in the name of spiritual discipline. Yes, Paul replaces physical circumcision with spiritual, but in doing so he creates a far more insidious apparatus of control. This is a nature of anti-nature.

Ironic, then, that many of today’s anti-gay voices call homosexuality “unnatural” in a pseudo-scientific sense. They are wrong; Paul is right. Homosexuality is entirely too natural, found in over 600 animal species. Sexuality in general, we have learned, is not merely a means of reproduction for advanced mammals but a way to establish emotional bonds and experience pleasure (which theists believe God created, after all). Patriarchy, power, and domination are natural in the Pauline sense, but unnatural in the scientific one. Thus the everpresent anxiety that these “natural” forms are about to disintegrate. As Timothy Kandler Beal put it (Religion and its Monsters, pp. 89-90):

[B]iblical tradition is fraught with tensions that go to the very core of its conceptions of the world and its ruler God. On the one hand, it is confident in the stable, reasonable order of the cosmos, confident in our ability to articulate that order and confident in God as founder and guarantor of that order; on the other hand, it is haunted by monstrous forms of profound disjunction and disorder, shadowy revelations on the edge between creation and uncreation, cosmos and chaos, and haunted by the lurking anxiety that God, like the world God created, is fraught with the same tensions.

This is as much true today as 2,500 years ago. Now, NCR voices fret that “untrammeled homosexuality can destroy a social system,” and have railed even against anti-bullying campaigns. And so they should! For them, the erasure of traditional male/female boundaries (forgetting, for a moment, women in political power like Sarah Palin and stay-at-home dads) does indeed threaten the boundaries upon which their archaic civilization is built. Sissy boys and butch women are more than merely offensive to Ann Coulter’s desire for well-endowed macho men like George W. Bush; “San Francisco Values” threaten the front lines of the regulation of human desire, and the subservience to authority that conservatism demands. No wonder one Orthodox rabbi recently said that it would be a mitzvah for gay kids to kill themselves.

But if liberated sexuality is world-destroying from the mythic, fundamentalist point of view, it is world-creating from a pluralistic one. Liberated sexuality is the first step toward liberated consciousness, for if we remove the yoke of oppression from our genitals, literally and figuratively, and we lighten it from our backs. Remove the church’s and the state’s sexual fascism, and its other means of control become susceptible to questioning as well. The chaos they predicted simply does not arise; we gain freedom, not terror—love, not venality. The relaxation from dichotomization to inclusion, boundary-patrol to pluralism, is thus an enactment of the messianic impulse itself.

Ken Wilber wrote that “every boundary line… is a battle line.” As soon as we begin to divide, we begin to conquer. Dichotomies (in-group/out-group, male/female, saved/doomed, us/them, white/black) inevitably lead to oppression. There is no ‘separate but equal.’ If we are to liberate ourselves from ideologies of hate, marginalization, and oppression, we must begin on our very bodies.